The Sheep Look Up

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The Sheep Look Up
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorJohn Brunner (novelist)
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreScience Fiction, Dystopian
PublisherHarper & Row
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
LC ClassPZ4.B89 Sh PR6052.R8

The Sheep Look Up is a science fiction novel by British author John Brunner, first published in 1972. The novel's setting is decidedly dystopian; the book deals with the deterioration of the environment in the United States. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972 and is celebrated in a 1988 essay by John Skipp in Horror: 100 Best Books.


The title of the novel is a quotation from the poem Lycidas by John Milton:

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread ...

Plot summary[edit]

The book follows the events of a future dystopian world over an unspecified year, with an epilogue set some time later.

Continuing the style used in Stand on Zanzibar, there is a multi-strand narrative, and many characters in the book never meet each other; some characters only appear in one or two vignettes. Similarly, instead of chapters, the book is broken up into sections which range from thirty words in length to several pages.

The main plot revolves around suspect cases of deliberate poisoning by the U.S.-based Bamberley Trust corporation of their Nutripon relief food supplies directed to Africa and Central America. The poisoned food had the effect of instigating homicidal madness in those who ate it, and many suspected this was engineered by the corporation with the final aim of weakening the local governments and more easily exploiting the natural resources of the affected countries. No conclusive evidence of deliberate poisoning is found when, suddenly, a severe epidemic of mutated Escherichia coli affects the United States, millions of people are unable to work and produce food, and water filtering systems are unable to fully remove the bacteria from freshwater – and the authorities must cope with the decision to deliver the discredited Nutripon food to their own country as a much-needed food aid.

By the end of the book, rioting and civil unrest sweep the United States because of poor health, poor sanitation, lack of food, lack of services, ineffectiveness of services (medical, policing), disillusionment with government/companies, oppressive government, high incidence of birth defects (pollution-induced), and other factors; all services (military, government, private, infrastructure) break down.

The setting of the story depicts a bleak and rapidly deteriorating world. In the developed countries and in large parts of the developing regions alike industrial pollution led to contamination of land and freshwater sources, inducing illness and mutation in cattle and newborn alike.

World oceans are in particularly bad shape due to the pollution, and coastal waters are mostly covered by a stinky, oily film. The Mediterranean Sea is poisoned beyond recovery, leading to war, famine, and civil unrest in the surrounding countries.

Many animal species and surface sea fish are on the brink of extinction, while birds are not as common as before. In big cities such as New York, air has to be filtered and purified expensively, and the use of gas masks is recommended in most cases. Nearly everyone's health has been affected in some way.

In the U.S., a corporation-sponsored government has risen and racial and civil unrest is growing. Travel abroad is discouraged because of terrorist attacks on planes, while fewer and fewer people graduate with science, engineering, or business management degrees. The number of poor people is growing while the shrinking number of the wealthy enclose themselves in walled communities guarded by armed mercenaries.

A growing group of environmentally-conscious activists calling themselves "Trainites" – from their hidden leader Austin Train – turn slowly to terrorist acts in an attempt to stop the corporations from spoiling the Earth.

The character of Austin Train in The Sheep Look Up serves a similar purpose to Xavier Conroy in The Jagged Orbit or to Chad Mulligan in Stand on Zanzibar: He is an academic who, despite predicting and interpreting social change, has become disillusioned by the failure of society to listen. This character is used both to drive the plot and to explain back-story to the reader.

Publication notes[edit]

Despite being nominated for a Nebula Award, the book fell out of print, only later being republished. The new edition contains a foreword by David Brin and an afterword by environmentalist and social change theorist James John Bell. Brin places the book in the context of Brunner's time and other writings. In the afterword, Bell treats the book almost as prophecy, drawing parallels between events in the book and subsequent real world developments: "His words have a kind of Gnostic power embedded in them that gives his characters passage into our world". He notes that "Brunner's puppet of a president, affectionately called Prexy, is a dead ringer for our Dubya".

Environmental protest sabotage done by the Earth Liberation Front is pulled directly from the pages of the novel.[citation needed] Writer William Gibson made a similar remark in a 2007 interview:

No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel The Sheep Look Up, has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it."[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dennis Lim: Now romancer. Interview with William Gibson,, 11 August 2007

External links[edit]